Saturday, February 27, 2016

American Zoning as an Expression of Nativism

It's possible to advance many explanations for the rise of zoning in the United States in the 1920s: classism, resurgent racism, reaction to rising vehicular traffic, the failure of restrictive covenants and many more.  While all of these reasons, among others, have some explanatory power, for me they fail to adequately account for the unique and distinguishing features of American zoning as described by author Sonia Hirt, namely, the establishment of exclusively residential zones as well as the creation of single-family detached zones.

A possible alternative explanation is that these specific features were motivated by and in reaction to many of the same conditions that gave rise to the immigration restriction movement which came to prominence at nearly the exact same time.  For example, the village of Euclid's zoning ordinance, which led to the Supreme Court case of the same name, was adopted in November 1922, slightly more than a year after the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was enacted.  Restrictionist currents were running very strongly throughout the nation at the very time that cities busied themselves passing zoning laws.

Now, one fact that may surprise is that immigrants at the turn of the century actually had higher homeownership rates than the native population.  This chart, compiled by economist Richard Sutch in a recent paper, depicts homeownership by city size in 1900 among the native-born and foreign-born, showing that the foreign-born had substantially higher homeownership in virtually all cities and city sizes apart from New York (the entry point for many immigrants), where the difference was nonetheless small:

How, or why, did the foreign-born achieve relatively high rates of ownership? Sutch speculates that immigrants valued property ownership due to "the importance of acquiring a life-cycle stock of wealth because of an inability to rely upon distant family members, the larger community, or co-ethnic neighbors for protection in old age."  Contrarily, in From Cottage to Bungalow, Joseph Bigott writes about ethnic savings and loan entities in turn-of-the-century Chicago and how these offered greater financial flexibility, in some sense, to new immigrants.

What seems to be generally agreed on is that immigrants, more so than natives, embraced small multifamily dwellings and home commercial uses, whether as simple as a chicken coop in the backyard or as elaborate as an entire storefront added onto a single-family home.  Jacob Wegmann, writing in What Happened to the Three Decker, quotes a developer as noting that the small multifamily dwelling provides "a way for working class folks with no established assets to obtain an owner-occupied residence." Additionally, he writes:
"[I]mmigrant families, many of them already the owners of small businesses, were likelier to be undaunted by the extra risks and work posed by being small landlords, such as the need to build up cash reserves to cover loan payments in the event of vacancy of the rental apartment. Additionally, partially due to Chicago’s characteristic clustering by nationality, many immigrant families have an extensive network of acquaintances from the same ethnic group to draw upon as a pool of potential tenants, and for whom credit and character checks can be undertaken in a verbal, informal manner via social contacts."
The small business and the multifamily dwelling were, in that sense, the gateway to prosperity for many immigrants, as well as a gateway to homeownership, around 1900 and continuing even today.  Given that reality, I think the observer of history should find it very odd how central a position American zoning gave to the exclusion of commercial uses from residential areas and the banning of multifamily uses from large areas of entire cities, particularly when other countries not so well-known for their elevation of so-called property rights embraced neighborhood commercial as a desirable and positive social good. 

Small SF and multifamily housing with added restaurant/retail, Port Chester, NY.
I do not know what the position of Edward Murray Bassett, the father of American zoning, was on immigration.  His autobiography is virtually impossible to obtain.  His writings available online do not directly mention it.  I would perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt.  The motives of many of his contemporaries, however, are not in doubt, as Seymour Toll wrote in 1969 in Zoned American:  
"The [laundry] controls were an expression of the hatred and antipathy which San Franciscans were directing against the Chinese, trying to force them to quit the city. The immigrant is in the fiber of zoning.  He first appeared as an Oriental.  In early twentieth-century New York he is seen as a southeastern European, the lower East Side garment worker who presence in midtown Manhattan created one of the decisive moments in the history of zoning."
None of this is terribly new or controversial.  A connection that hasn't been made as clearly is how single-family zoning and the total exclusion of commercial uses were specifically targeted at the immigrant businesses and housing options described above.  A newly-arrived immigrant (and most people in general) did not have the capital to construct an entire "mixed use" building.  After some time, though, he might be able to add a very small commercial addition onto an existing building, as shown in the photo above, or convert the first floor into a storefront.  Zoning would forbid this development in two ways: first, by instituting setbacks, and secondly by eliminating commercial uses altogether.  Even native residents needed commercial uses in close proximity, but these were to be relegated to special corridors where competition would be greater and immigrants would have more difficulty gaining a toehold.  

With respect to residential buildings, the banning of small multifamily buildings from much of the city foreclosed the route to homeownership previously mentioned.  A century after New York's zoning code was adopted, the numbers have flipped, and the native born are much more likely to be homeowners than the foreign born (67% to 52%, according to the Census).  The financial benefits of homeownership, moreover, have been concentrated in the hands of the upper middle class, the original backers of zoning.

It is only antipathy to immigrant populations that I think can explain these dual features of almost all American zoning codes, and their absence from the codes of most other countries.  The apparent trauma of early 20th century immigration led Americans, or at least a vocal portion of them, to shred their traditional respect for individual property rights and institute special zones which reflected native middle-class values and conceptions of proper living conditions.  The loss of neighborhood shops, or affordable rentals, were unfortunate but necessary casualties of this process.  Elsewhere in the world, the process of commercial conversion can still be watched unfolding, as below in Mexico.

Shopfront in setback, contemporary Guadalajara suburbs, Mexico.
I am not certain, though, that the alliance against shops and multifamily dwellings was ever as unified as it was made out to be.  Then, as now, the loudest and shrillest voices probably carried the day.  Many natives would have liked to have run businesses out of their homes as well, although the importance of multifamily housing a means to ownership waned with the arrival of new forms of mortgage finance in the 1920s and especially 1930s.  

While times have changed, the rolling back the restrictive laws of the 1920s would pay dividends even today.  

Related posts: 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rehabilitating Walmart

Walmart has been in the news more than usual of late, with the announcement that it was closing 269 of its stores as well as backing out of building two stores in lower-income areas of Washington, D.C. Add this to Walmart's stock price decline of nearly 30% during 2015, and the picture begins to look somewhat bleak.  Although Walmart's financial prospects for the future are an interesting topic, it's the chain's position within urban environments that has been relatively little explored.

To set the context, it's crucial to note that Walmart has become in essence a bloated grocery chain, with 56% of its sales coming from groceries.  The growth in the grocery sector has been achieved in spite of the fact that Walmart earns by far the lowest customer satisfaction rating for its supermarket offerings of any major chain.  Moreover, the grocery business is more localized then the variety store
business. According to one recent study on the market effect of Walmart on the supermarket business:
"We find that Wal-Mart’s impact is highly localized, affecting firms only within a tight, two-mile radius of its location. Within this radius, the bulk of the impact falls on declining firms and mostly on the intensive margin. Entry of new firms is essentially unaffected. Moreover, the stores most damaged by Wal-Mart’s entry are the outlets of larger chains. This suggests that Wal-Mart’s expansion into groceries is quite distinct from its earlier experience in the discount industry, where the primary casualties were small chains and sole proprietorships that were forced to exit the market." 
It seems that, for grocery purchases, most consumers are unwilling to undertake longer journeys than necessary even for somewhat lower prices.  Walmart's use of the "Supercenter" business model, however, means that it is impossible extend those two-mile radii over an entire metro area.  Moreover, the dependency on low land prices for these stores means that Walmart is often absent from entire central areas of cities.

In San Antonio, for example, there is not a single Walmart establishment in the central 50 square miles of the city.  By contrast, local chains like H-E-B and independent groceries have the flexibility to open stores within central areas.  The abandonment of Walmart's "Express" stores with the recent closings seems to have spelled an end for an attempt to compete with these smaller urban groceries.
Further, these supermarket chains have been edging in on Walmart's own territory, with chains like Kroger beginning to stock clothing and a wider range of household items in their most recently opened stores.  The competition from Amazon has been widely reported on as well.


From an urbanist perspective, it's easy to cheer all this news and condemn these stores as destroyers of local business and magnets for the car-dependent, but does it need to be this way?  I'm not so sure.  The person who can find no redeeming qualities in big-box stores ignores a central fact of the modern US retailing industry, and to his or her peril.  If the conclusion is that these stores are incompatible with urbanism, then a large portion of the retail business will be relegated to the car-dominated realm.

Could we instead imagine, rather than a mall anchored by a big box store, a community supported by one of these same stores?  There is no need to imagine, as such spaces already exist.  In a suburb of Madrid, for example, here is a Carrefour hypermarket (the local equivalent of a Walmart or Target, at center) surrounded by a residential development and with no surface parking:

Although there is some underground parking, there is no surplus, and hundreds or thousands of surrounding residential units are within walking distance of the market.  Rather than detracting from small business, the pull of the market draws traffic down arteries past other businesses, providing them with needed foot traffic.  It should be noted there is rapid transit in close proximity as well, just barely visible in the lower left hand corner, and there is also a network of segregated bicycle paths.

There are historic precedents for this sort of urbanism in the form of the souk or bazaar, itself a sort of mall at the center of a walkable city, as well as the ancient Roman forum, which was often little more than temple in the middle of a two-story arcaded and enclosed shopping mall.  Some structures, such as Trajan's market in Rome, were in fact enclosed malls of shops and offices with an appearance very similar to those of today.

Trajan's Market in Rome, one of the first "dead malls." Via Flickr.
 In a sense, the big box store offers unusual possibilities for walkability, and yet these have rarely if ever been taken advantage of within the United States.  Although there are some urban big box stores, the number of consciously planned "Walmart-oriented developments" appears to be close to zero (but wait -- see below).  Although there are many master-planned developments which incorporate retail, none are anywhere near as integrated as the above Spanish example.

A Target and supporting retail in Phoenix, AZ.
The typical Walmart or Target is designed around the assumption that near 100% of customers want to arrive and will arrive by driving, but this is also a self-limiting business model that virtually eliminates quick or impulse shopping trips, or trips by those without access to a car.  It is easy to envision how a combination of higher quality and more local food shopping options plus online shopping could threaten to weaken these chains' business model.

A greenfield Walmart or Target truly integrated with its surroundings and embracing the possibilities of pedestrian access -- even if it required these companies to dabble in residential real estate -- could have tremendous upside.  Using a five-minute walkshed, a sufficient density could be obtained using some of the residential forms visible in the Phoenix image above to provide the store with a reasonable portion of the customer base needed to economically sustain it.  Moreover, it would just be a more pleasant environment in which to live.

The challenge of incorporating parking, which would still be needed in lesser amount, was resolved in the Madrid example by a partially underground lot.  An alternative, rarely explored, is to place parking on the roof of a building.  The added construction expense might be compensated for by surrounding residential land use.

Rooftop parking at a Whole Foods in Washington, D.C.
This just in: just before I planned to publish this piece, Washington Business Journal published renderings of a newly-planned development in Washington DC that incorporates almost all the principles I discussed above:

Note the parking on the roof and the use of what would have been the surface parking area for shops and residential on narrow streets (!) closely integrated with and with easy walking access to the "big box" store at lower right in the rendering.  I have to think that this is the way forward for the big box store.  This design format makes allowance for car trips but embraces walkability as well.  It will be interesting to see how this project fares and if the concept catches on in other cities.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

NIMBYism Under the Microscope

Chris Bradford has a post at his new blog, also picked up at Citylab, urging a better understanding of the so-called NIMBY phenomenon. Chris' thesis, as he sets it out, is that "NIMBYism is about monopolizing access to neighborhood amenities."  This is somewhat different from other perspectives which view NIMBYism (a term I use due to lack of substitutes) as an attempt to protect property values, to exclude undesirables or to guarantee privacy.  As Chris writes:
"There are plenty of neighborhoods ... in which the value of neighborhood amenities is capitalized into home prices. These are neighborhoods with valuable amenities that lack close substitutes and which are, for lack of a better word, “under-zoned.” Homeowners in these neighborhoods have strong incentives to obstruct increases in zoning entitlements and to agitate for down-zonings in order to protect the value of club membership. And they do."
The post is very timely for me, as the city I live in is currently considering a proposal to upzone a single-family residential area around a commuter rail station that is surrounded by neighborhood commercial uses.  I won't get into the specifics of the location or the local politics, as the story could be repeated a thousand times across American towns and cities, but suffice it to say that the comments from neighborhood residents on a petition opposing this proposal are enlightening and, I think, strongly supportive of Chris' thesis.  I've excerpted a few of them below:
"I've lived here for 31 years and you are and in some ways already have destroyed the essence of our quaint village of [Anytown]." 
"I'm signing because our lovely [Anytown] is being destroyed, one building at a time. Please stop this madness. The only people benefitting from all this construction are the builders and developers." 
"Stop the intrusion to our community of apartment buildings and additional retail businesses. Our neighborhood is over-saturated. Traffic is horrendous, parking is limited, schools are over-crowded." 
"We have everything within walking distance; movie theater, skating rink, pet store, library, ice cream shop, restaurants, a great ball field. This is why our residents have chosen to live here for that small community feel. We do not need anymore apartments."
"I grew up in [Anytown] and it is a charming village and should remain that way. The streets cannot handle the traffic that would be created from any further development."
"[E]nough is enough. Think about the tax paying homeowners and not the greedy developers."
There is the clear sense here of a valuable amenity, a "quaint," "lovely" village with "everything within walking distance" that has been subjected to competition from new residents.  Because I always prefer a helping of data with my anecdotes, I charted out all the "NIMBY" comments -- more than 80 of them in this case -- based on the concerns they raise in the chart below:

Increased car traffic is far and away the most mentioned concern, with overpopulation/overcrowding second, neighborhood character third, school overcrowding fourth and parking fifth.  Notably, there were no comments citing home values or privacy concerns.  One or two comments did refer obliquely to people deciding to sell in response to the arrival of apartments, but these were linked to changing neighborhood character (a less family-friendly environment) rather than falling neighborhood property values, and implied greater rather than lesser demand.

Again, I think this is strongly supportive of Chris' thesis.  The neighborhood in question is "under-zoned" relative to its capacity, particularly in light of transit access, and enjoys amenities that are underutilized.  The repeated references to traffic, strain on schools and overcrowding are simply different ways of stating opposition to more intensive use of neighborhood amenities by additional residents.  Issues such as increased noise, crime, anxiety over renter populations and similar concerns were cited much less often.

The tone of the comments also provides a window into NIMBY psychology.  Comments are rarely measured in their language and frequently employ hyperbole.  The majority are devoid of any optimism, and one gets the overriding sense that there can be no positive change, only a constant battle against further decline and decay.  This NIMBY mindset, pessimistic in the extreme, appears to be behind the despairing tone evident in much of the commentary.  It may be that these attitudes are most prevalent in those areas where upzoning would be most beneficial for precisely the reasons Chris mentions.

Overall, these sorts of findings suggest that addressing concerns over property values may have little impact in many cases of neighborhood opposition to densification.  Understanding what motivates this opposition will require looking closely and in good faith at the concerns that are raised.